Across the Black Sea, about 330 miles directly south from the Russian forces in Sevastopol, Crimea, is Ankara, Turkey.
There you’ll find Recep Tayyip Erdogan — another fervent authoritarian.
Then, yesterday, Erdogan answered the questions of those who had been asking whether we’d see a Wag the Dog type of conflict in Syria. In an apparently calculated act, a Turkish air-force jet downed one of Assad’s bombers.
In some sense, of course, this air attack wasn’t exactly a bad thing. After all, Assad is using his bombers to annihilate the Syrian people. Nevertheless, considered together, Erdogan’s latest actions should trouble us.
For a start, they come from a troubling playbook. At home, Turkey’s leader has repeatedly proven he’s willing to use violence to quell dissent. As Turkish investigative journalists have found, inquiry can easily end up in incarceration. In his foreign policy, Erdogan has shown a similar penchant for extremism, as typified in his reaction to the 2010 Gaza-flotilla incident. As Netanyahu formally apologized for the death of nine Turkish citizens aboard the flotilla, Erdogan cranked up the tension by calling Zionism a “crime against humanity” and comparing it to fascism.
The latest incidents continue in this vein and suggest that Erdogan is capable of just about anything.
Think about the irrationality of his Twitter war. The Internet is a frontierless informational commons. In political terms, it’s a realm that’s extraordinarily difficult to control. That’s especially so in Turkey, where a young population has easy access to technology. Unsurprisingly, as the BBC explains, Erdogan’s ban is proving to be an unbelievable farce. In fact, far from silencing his critics, the prime minister has only reinforced their vocal anger, as Turkey’s explosion of tweeting illustrates. Turkish society is increasingly fragile — last summer’s bloody showdown in Istanbul’s Taksim Square shows that — and Erdogan seems determined to expand the divisions.
In a sign of Turkey’s internal conflicts, even Erdogan’s fellow party leader, the Turkish president, Abdullah Gul, has condemned him, albeit probably in part because he wants Erdogan’s job.
These are the facts. But how do we explain the social roots of Turkey’s increasing instability?
First, we can blame the battle between Erdogan and Turkey’s political establishment. As Mustafa Akyol has noted, Turkey is suffering from the long-term rot of its political class. Decades of corruption have insulated powerful interest groups at various levels of Turkish political society. Born partly of Turkey’s turbulent military-political history, this rot is made worse by the absence of credible non-partisan institutions and by the flourishing of political patronage. Thus, as Erdogan seeks to consolidate his authority, he’s being challenged by others who are committed to retaining their power.
Second, Erdogan’s populist-ideological struggle with Turkish secular society is a destabilizing force. Many secularists once regarded Erdogan as a tolerable figure, but the majority of them now share the Kemalist assessment of him: He’s an existential threat. Fearful of Erdogan’s creeping authoritarianism and of his intoxicated, hectoring diktats (aimed at both public and private behavior), many now see him as the corporeal figurehead for an approaching Islamic dictatorship. Correspondingly, the more aggressive Erdogan becomes in his social restrictions, the louder and more desperate is the opposition response.
To be fair, we must accept that Erdogan retains significant popularity within his party, the AKP. Regarding education and the economy (notwithstanding Turkey’s problematic current account deficit), his record is at least somewhat impressive. More important, in his mix of fiery nationalism and genuine Islamism, Erdogan has offered his supporters an imam Ataturk. That ironic character sits well with the AKP party faithful, those who regard Turkey as a proud beacon for political Islam.
Still, it’s increasingly clear that Erdogan’s unrestrained ambition is leading his nation down a hard path. In the arrogance and entitlement he displays when attacking his opponents, Erdogan reveals himself as calculating and gleefully undemocratic. In the unpredictability of his Syria policy, he adds another dimension to an already brutally convoluted war. And for a leader so personally associated with political Islam, Erdogan’s paranoid intolerance is an uninspiring example for that cause.
Attentive to these truths, Erdogan would be well advised to find some humility.
If he fails to do so, Turkey and the world will face an increasingly precarious future.